The following is a companion piece to a panel TNQ convened at this year’s Wild Writers Festival (Fall, 2015). K.D. Miller (All Saints; Holy Writ) and Christine Pountney (Sweet Jesus) were joined by poet Eve Joseph (In the Slender Margin) to discuss the art of spiritual memoir. The topic was a natural outgrowth of an email discussion late in the summer of 2015, which centred primarily on the fiction writers’ relationship to religion and literature.
The conversation below is an entry point, the briefest of inquiries into a strangely divisive subject. Kirsteen MacLeod’s “Almost Anything” in this issue describes the risk that writers face going public with their interest in spiritual writing. K.D. Miller has watched people actually drop her book on creativity and spirituality, Holy Writ, like it was a hot potato. Eve Joseph pointedly avoids calling In the Slender Margin a spiritual memoir. Kathleen Winter recalls reviews that pan the spiritual in Boundless. Sad, but true: on the whole, CanLit that is tinged with a religious aura lacks a solid fan base. The success of Miller’s 2014 short story collection All Saints, which was long-listed for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, is uncommon. Generally, sales and critical reception are politely slim. However much we can all agree that religion is a force (in history, social upheaval, political intrigue, and culture wars), literature with religious overtones can fail to win the heart.
This lack of interest has long been true for Canadian consumers. Look at the second edition (2001) of the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, and you’ll find that the lively entries on humour and sports writing in CanLit are twice as long as that on literature and religion—this at a time when Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage and Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch that Ends the Night were read widely and when literary critic Northrop Frye was enjoying rock star status. Frye’s argument that English literature was rooted in biblical images and narratives was hot in the academy, at least; elsewhere, maybe not so much.
The Bible versus baseball? Sorry, no contest.
Public appetite has since changed, a little. Award-winning novels such as A Complicated Kindness and The Life of Pi sprang up in the shadow of the Dan Brown blockbusters and the trending of a resurrected Tolkien—pop culture hits in film and fiction that have introduced a whole new generation to the highs of decoding religious symbols. Still, by and large, our publishing priorities have not shifted all that much. Do not type “religion” into 49th Shelf (49thshelf. com), the go-to site for Canadian book titles, if you’re hunting for bestsellers. Even award-winning works that explore religious themes or are rooted in spiritual inquiry, say, for instance, Eve Joseph’s exquisite work on death and dying or the writings of Tim Lilburn, are not cross-referenced in the system.
Cataloguing books as religious or spiritual is the kiss of death.
The formal study of religion and literature has been around for decades, but its trickle-down effect is poor, and lingo is still loaded, imprecise. Take the words “religion” and “spirituality”: are they the same as or different from “the sacred,” “mind, body, spirit,” or simply “the inner life,” (the preferred wording now on several Websites)? Is religion code for conservatism, or does it signify the institutional life of mosque and synagogue, temple, church, sangha, and gurdwara? If spirituality means the experiential, what is not confined to religious systems, how are we to read the mystical literature that’s flowered in the world’s great traditions? And where do Native cultures fit in the discussion? Should Native anything be invoked in the same breath as the Christian Church?
See? Muddled. In some ways our thinking, like our lingo, is still muddled.
Muddled is okay if it’s early days, if the journey (another loaded word) is just starting. But the art of spiritual autobiography dates to the fourth century. Are we no closer to precision than Augustine was to peace of mind when he penned his Confessions? Or does precision about which words to use grow more difficult the more secular we become? Surely, the more multicultural a society, the greater the interest there should be in all veins of pluralism, including religious heritage, symbols, myths, rituals, beliefs, art forms, and language. And yet religious literacy (by which I mean awareness, not compliance) is now so thin that PEN Canada president Randy Boyagoda is lamenting the “lack [of ] a frame of reference to discuss religion in this country.” Religion is regarded as a private issue that seldom piques public interest, that’s seen as marginal to the national conversation. In other words, so what if some folks are hot-potato hostile to a group’s religious interests or a person’s spiritual leanings? How does that concern your average bookworm?
It concerns us because the early Protestant pioneers who cast a jaundiced eye on fiction—a synonym for lies, that was fiction—are but a mouldering hundred-something years behind us. The “garrison mentality” is how Frye characterized the Canadian imagination. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if that is still the case. Because, if it is, chances are that when tens of thousands of refugees are resettled in this country, we may be less than welcoming. Worst case scenario, we’ll be wary and defensive.
What we talk about when we talk about the sacred is, well, complicated, especially when it comes to sacred values we say we all agree on. Being an open society, for instance.
Granted, CanLit may seem tangential here. Canadian publishing is not the mother lode of iconic works on religious themes and issues. History has not marked us with pronounced religious instincts, not like it has our neighbours to the South, a place where religion, pro or con, informs the oldest layers of public discourse. Our sense of ourselves as a people isn’t tied to the founders dying for religious freedom. “In God we Trust” is not emblazoned on our currency. (We go in for national treasures like the outdoor rink.) There is very little day-to day demand in public life for illumination of religious temperaments or backgrounds. What there is, is unlimited access to distinguished writing from abroad. The U.S. alone boasts Hawthorne, Baldwin, O’Connor, Malamud, Potok, and contemporaries Wendell Berry, Louise Erdrich, Natalie Goldberg, Patricia Hampl, Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, Marilynne Robinson . . . the fiction writers’ list alone is humbling. Long before we were pamphleteering for Confederation, the American literary scene, from poetry to politics, had a deep religious backstory. Religion is in that country’s DNA.
And we appreciate the fact, we do. We also do so at a welcome distance.
My question is whether this arrangement—this comfortable distance from what’s perceived as other—keeps us from blazing trails, examining our assumptions, telling our own peculiar tales. If the “true north, strong and free” does not present as fanatical, rancour-ridden, or sentimental—stereotypes we associate with America’s faith-inflected culture—is it because we prefer the cool role of observer to that of devotee or rabble-rouser?
Not that we don’t speak in tongues. We do. We speak in irony and satire. A dry wit and quirky tone are hallmarks of our English prose. The problem is, as long as we leave imagining—envisioning, expressing, doubting, hand-wringing, angel-wrestling, what have you—to voices from elsewhere, we are letting someone else do the heavy lifting.
We are also outsourcing the inner life.
At TNQ, we took our troubles about all this to two pioneers who invest creatively in this kind of writing, and who are willing to speak openly about their relationship to religion and spirituality. Why fiction writers? Why begin the conversation with K.D. Miller’s “quietly astonishing” (Macleans) All Saints and Christine Pountney’s Sweet Jesus—what Miriam Toews called “a guide to being human in an ungodly world”? Well, for starters, these are works that introduce us to the affective side, the human face, of this complex cultural issue. With fiction, abstract debates about belief, belonging, and observance take a backseat to what scholars call “lived religion”: quirky day-to-day stuff, habits, rituals and relationships, temperaments, biases, and dispositions, the messy, non-rational aspects of life that are far from systemized, if they are even conscious. Worlds we might otherwise never know of, let alone set foot in.
Worlds we can come to know, and care about.
Therein lies the genius of the gifted storyteller. Fiction complicates narrow, uninflected categories such as the merely personal (confessional, private) or the sociological (measurable, external). Fiction complicates the rush to trends, the fallback on lax definitions. We read, and as we read we empathize, re-think things, ideally, in some depth. We learn to care, and once we care, we may be moved to act—to listen deeply to other people’s stories, or perhaps speak up and tell our own.
Either way, the writer needs a hearing. Canadian writers of all backgrounds and persuasions deserve the ear of great publishers and avid readers. They also need the freedom simply to write without fear of hot-potato moments, critical dismissal, or that nagging shame that drives stories underground. In the words of French poet Paul Éluard: “There is another world, but it is this one.” Let’s stop outsourcing, shall we?
Susan Scott: Let’s begin with beginnings. Tell us about your formation and background, about influences, past and present, what you read, and why. Do you recall what were you reading while All Saints and Sweet Jesus were taking shape? Or what works you recommend to students, to those who are interested in, say, spiritual memoir as well as fiction?
K.D. Miller: I was always a spooky kid. I looked forward to Halloween as much as to Christmas, and I loved to read ghost stories, murder mysteries, even horror. The high point of my week was Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone.” When I was ten or so, my mother had to take a collection of Poe’s writings away from me. I was reading “The Premature Burial” over and over, totally obsessed. I also loved myths and legends—stories of the assorted gods, different versions of how the world came to be. Right from the first, I assumed that there was more to my existence than what I could perceive with my five senses. There was something out there that I could neither see nor touch nor come close to understanding—something, nevertheless, in which I believed.
Naturally, I didn’t come up with this notion all by myself. I grew up in the 1950s. At my (public) school, the principal read a passage of the Bible every morning over the PA system, then we all recited the Lord’s prayer before getting down to our spelling and arithmetic. There must have been Jewish kids in my classes, and I guess they just went along to get along. But that was the world I grew up in. God indisputably existed, Jesus took a personal interest in my behaviour, and church happened every Sunday morning whether I liked it or not.
My family was Presbyterian, and if as a child I had been asked what that involved, I would have replied in all innocence that it meant we were better than the Catholics, whom we hated. I attended my family’s Presbyterian church until high school, when I met up with a wild bunch of United Church kids and started attending theirs. In fact, my adolescent rebellion consisted of getting baptized.
Once in university, while I struggled with the attractions of atheism, I found another religion—theatre. I loved the ritual of performance, the imaginative intimacy—you might say extreme empathy—of playing a character. Both my degrees are in theatre, and I still use what I learned as an actor and director when I write. In fact, the two—acting and writing—are remarkably close.
Some time in my thirties, I realized that, willy-nilly, I was a default Christian. It was my background, it had shaped my world-view, and to deny all that would be as silly as denying that English was my mother tongue. One thing led to another, and, at the age of 39, I was confirmed in the Anglican church of Canada. By then, I was writing seriously, getting my first book of stories together, and beginning to realize that writing was in some way linked to the spiritual side of my being.
Kathleen Norris’s memoir The Cloister Walk was among the first books that gave me permission to let my religious self out onto the page. It was honest, earthy, and unabashed—everything I wanted to be as a (somewhat furtive) church-goer and as a writer. I also read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Here was a writer who acknowledged that her spiritual and creative sides were so tightly thatched as to be virtually indistinguishable. At about the same time, I was taking a course in the New Testament at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College. I wrote an essay titled Ephphatha—dealing with Mark’s account of Jesus healing a man who was deaf and mute. The word means “be opened” and I equated it to the way writer’s block can end as suddenly and mysteriously as it begins. In that essay, I put into writing something I had been thinking for some time—namely, that writing fiction is the way I pray. Seeing that admission on the page was both scary and liberating. I had no wish to be seen as a “religious writer.” But what other kind could I, in all honesty, admit to being? When I wrestle with character, when I search for the right word, I am struggling to tell the truth, to be absolutely fair to the material, the reader and myself. I am never more authentic in my life than when I am trying to write as well as I can. And those times when the writing all but takes over, when my hand can hardly keep up with what feels like supernatural dictation, well, that’s as close to experiencing grace as I ever get.
I honestly don’t remember what I was reading when I wrote All Saints. I’m always reading something—I have the proverbial pile of books beside the bed. So it would have been the usual hodgepodge of mysteries, story collections, biographies, poems. One book I can credit with having exerted an influence on mine is Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I admired the way she allowed her protagonist to dominate some stories, yet have no more than a walk-on in others. By the same token, the eponymous church of All Saints might at times be the setting or galvanizing factor for a story, while at other times it gets just a passing mention.
Unlike some authors, I never feel I must avoid reading a certain kind of material for fear it will interfere with my creative work. On the contrary, when I am close to finishing a story, I could swear that the whole world pitches in to help. Books I’m reading, movies I see, conversations I overhear on the subway—it all supports and feeds and contributes to whatever I’m trying to get down on the page.
I do teach a workshop on writing spiritual memoir. One bit of advice I pass on is something I came across years ago, and can’t for the life of me remember where. It’s this: Don’t write about God. Write about God’s hat. That is, if your topic is something abstract, even ineffable, you have to ground it in the nitty-gritty of the here and now. Don’t even try to describe feeling “spiritual.” Write about the sights and smells and textures involved in cooking a meal for a bunch of hungry people you love. Write about the delicious exhaustion that follows good sex. Write about laughing till you cry when an elderly aunt finally blurts out what she really thinks of the minister. God’s hat, in other words.
Christine Pountney: Yes, it’s like that writing exercise in which you write a poem about an emotion without ever referring to that emotion. I love sharing with my students the idea of T.S.Eliot’s “objective correlative,” and getting them to find an object or an action to stand in for the emotion in a particular scene, and getting them to write about that instead of the emotion. (Milan Kundera described doing something similar with regards to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, how he built his characters up from a single object that epitomized some central aspect of their personality, which, in Sabina’s case, was submission, or humiliation, evoked by the presence of her grandfather’s bowler hat.) It’s useful to know, as well, especially if you are wanting to talk about matters spiritual, that you can move on from the description of something concrete to something that is abstract (for example, an object to an emotion), once it has been qualified. James Salter will do this: after a long paragraph describing the smokey light coming in off the river, the deep maroons and navys in the carpet, what’s on the walls, the worn leather sofa, what people are wearing, how obfuscating, but riveting their dialogue is, how trivial but loaded with competitiveness, he will end with a line like, The party was beautiful. Once you’ve earned it, through concrete description, that kind of word can really soar; but to begin at that point, for instance, My spiritual experience was beautiful, will probably make most people gag.
That is the thing about language, you have to qualify what it means to you. The word love can connote elation, or mourning, be a pale yellow cashmere sweater to one person, or hiding under a desk from an angry parent to another.
It’s hard now to remember exactly what my influences were when I wrote Sweet Jesus—it was a long time ago, and I’ve done most of my spiritual reading since then (which I would describe as being as disparate as Rachel Cuck’s Aftermath, John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook, to Marilynn Robinson, Annie Dillard, Evelyn Eaton’s The Trees and Fields Went the Other Way, to Bear Heart’s The Wind Is My Mother). I started to write Sweet Jesus after Bush was re-elected in 2008 and the Christian Right had arrived in the consciousness of the media as this very distinctive demographic. (I just misspelled that as demongraphic.) I was very interested in how the Liberal left was so dismissive, intolerant, reductive, and often genuinely perplexed at how decent American folk could buy into this political party that really had none of its best interests at heart. The answer lies in a big political deception, but the attraction for a lot of Americans to the Republican Party (as well as Canadians to the Conservatives) was because of how willing they were to couch their campaign values in moral terms, while the secular left was cautious not to do so. And it spoke to me of the need people have for morality, for that kind of guidance, and the safety net of what religion can offer.
Having grown up in a religious family (my father was ordained as an Anglican priest when I was thirteen, but both my parents had always been evangelical, and then later on my dad became the principal of Wycliffe College—where you took that New Testament course, KDM—before returning to work in a parish) and being the dissenting black sheep, I felt I had a foot in both camps, and wanted to write a book that would bridge this seemingly impossible divide. I wanted those opposing camps to see the humanity in each other, so I decided to write about two sisters, one religious, one not—which happens also to be true of my sister and me (though the novel is by no means a memoir). I wanted a Christian to read my book and feel well and fairly represented, and a non-believer to read my book and feel the same, and for them both to finish the book with a bit more compassion and understanding about the other. Of course I wanted Jesus to be in the book as well, and I thought, what would Jesus be doing if he were alive today? And I thought, he might be gay, because there had to be some aspect of his being that would provoke some people and make him vulnerable to persecution, so he would know what it was like to be judged and condemned for something innate. I decided to put Jesus in a healing profession, so I thought he might work in palliative care, helping ferry people into the afterlife, and then I thought of a children’s ward, and the therapeutic clowns that work there, and the history behind clowning, and a clown’s ability to challenge our perception, and be an outsider, able to appreciate the ridiculous and the sublime, and to be so fundamentally other as to be egoless. (I have since learned a lot more about clowns, especially how they feature—and are revered—in First Nation’s spirituality, and this is very much their role.)
When I had my three main characters, I wondered if The Brothers Karamzov would be a good model for my book, but it was too structured. I did, however, come across two quotes that I found inspiring and decided to use them as epigraphs to my manuscript in progress. One was from Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and the other was a quote from the Book of Job, chapter 6, verse 6: Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg? I’m not sure why this question about an egg inspired me so much, but I came across it doing that thing of opening the Bible and putting your finger down at random and thought, yes, life has to be flavourful, your righteousness can’t make life dull and pleasureless. If it does, you’ve lost the point. And the other quote? It seemed to summarize my book’s thesis.
I had been thinking about what made one person religious and another not, and then I came across this passage in Of Human Bondage: The fact was that he had ceased to believe not for this reason or the other, but because he had not the religious temperament.
I once told my dad that if I’d ever felt sure of it, I would’ve been a Christian in a heartbeat; but whose fault is it (if to fault a person for a lack of faith is what we’re after) that the story of Christ has not gripped me by the balls and held me fast for decades?
I was quite spiritual as a child. My parents were evangelical hippies. It was a very creative and adventurous, clean-living kind of an upbringing. My sister and I spent a lot of time in nature, moved house nearly once a year, and were encouraged to be independent thinkers. I think my parents may have rued the emphasis on independence when one of their daughters (namely myself ) turned out to be so independent she got kicked out of four high schools, got arrested twice, and took off to California on a Greyhound bus with 200 bucks in her pocket at the age of sixteen. It seemed, on the surface, that I had become irredeemably unreligious, but there were ways in which I lived by faith. The narrative of the wayward dissolute is so inexorably tied to the conversion story, too; it is the stuff of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, Augustine’s Confessions. It seems to hold proof of a certain kind of temperament, and here I want to make a distinction between religiosity and spirituality, one being fastened to dogma, the other to yearning; one loves safety, the other experience. True spirituality, I think, is a deeply unsettling disposition to have, and often drives those who have it on extreme quests after things so ephemeral they may never be found.
I tried, in my novel, to portray the freedom and chaos of someone with a spiritual nature versus the order and control of someone with a religious nature. Hannah has a spiritual nature, but is not a Christian. Connie is a Christian, but doesn’t have as much faith as her sister, whose faith is perhaps not in God, but a god that goes by another name: life. Thus, Hannah lives like a mystic, Connie more like a worker bee. Both approaches are perfectly acceptable and both perfectly suited to their temperaments; they don’t envy each others’ lives, but they do want to be understood. Hannah fears being hemmed in, Connie of being boundary-less.
Hannah is also a writer in the novel, and I think there are so many parallels between art and spirituality. They are both so closely linked, through design, with the god-like act of creation, and invaluable to both is the role of the imagination.
As I mentioned earlier, my parents were creative evangelicals in the seventies, and they taught me to self-soothe through spirituality. If I felt sad or afraid they would tell me to go to my special place, where Jesus was always available for a chat. So, from a rather early age, Jesus was connected to my imagination. I wouldn’t say he was a figment of my imagination (that’s not how it occurred to me), because I believed that he was real; but it was through my imagination that I could access him in a personalized form. Imagination is truth: this is something I tell my writing students. I don’t even know why or how this works, but it does. It’s like the wisdom inherent in dreams. In the beginning was not the Word; in the beginning was the Imagination. Somebody had to conceive of this, before it all came about. I guess it was the mind of God, whatever that is. We take up such an infinitesimally small part of the universe, it only shocks me now when someone thinks that what we “know” is all there is.
To access my special place, there was a trap door under my bed, and a vertical tunnel that took me, like Alice in Wonderland, down into the ground, past little crannies in the dirt walls that contained jars of jam and that sort of thing, until I got to a room that was more of a cave, with an arched wooden door and a fireplace that was always lit, and a rocking chair, and a big bed in a cosy nook, and that’s where Jesus would always be, lying in bed, under furs, and we’d talk. Sometimes we would snuggle, and there were animals there, gentle lions and bears, and sometimes we ate together and I was usually younger in this place, six or seven, and I used to wear this red velvet dress in Grade One, with white cotton cuffs and a collar, and I had white knee-high socks and little white tennis shoes, and that’s sort of how I picture my inner child, in that place, talking to a hippy Jesus, or a shamanic Jesus, really. And I did this until I outgrew him and started partying and doing drugs and getting my spiritual self-soothing in other places. But, the point is, my spirituality has always gone hand in hand with my imagination.
I know a lot of people dismiss spiritual experiences on the basis that they are made up, that people who’ve had a “religious experience” are deluding themselves about the existence of a God that can actually communicate with them, send a message, or a sign, who will listen, or even care. Oh, she just made that up in her head. But what if everything is made up in our heads? What if all reality, including the stock market, and countries, and war and love and advertising, and jealousy, ambition, fame, success, failure—what if all these things first had to be thought up in our heads in order to become real?
I taught a class recently, called Soulful Writing, and we did meditations, and visualizations, and shamanic journeying with the drum and rattle into the lower world. I encouraged my students to think that what we were doing was strictly an exercise of the imagination, and then we’d write about what we’d thought up in our heads. Often it was dreamlike, symbolic. And they all quite quickly took these symbols as having meaning. They looked for signs and indications, they hankered after the wisdom and guidance inherent in their own minds. By asking them to consider these shamanic spiritual practices as acts simply of the imagination, we quickly bypassed the skepticism of it being all made up. I said, Yes, consider it all made up. Now let’s have the experience. And it took no time to enter the realm of the spiritual. I think that’s because the spiritual hovers so nearby, all the time. And we crave it.
We are spiritual beings. We interact constantly, in ways we never stop to appreciate, with things that are invisible—emotions, fears, intuition, a gut feeling, trust. Spirituality, to me, is simply an interest in all the invisible stuff that contributes to our existence; and what excites me most is how an openness to being surprised will actually lead you to have experiences that will in turn change your perception, and when your perception changes, so does the world. There is such a symbiotic relationship between perception and what you can experience in reality. It is the great leap of faith that Christians describe. First you have to believe, and then you will find the proof. But putting it that way always felt a bit manipulative to me. It always felt too obvious. Of course, if I completely believe in something, then I will start to see the proof of it, not because it exists, but because my beliefs have affected my perception. What I wanted to know was how to believe in the first place.
I love, in the Indigenous world, how little emphasis is put on belief. All the emphasis is put on experience. Do this ceremony and it will change you, and if it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. But the thing is, the ceremonies will change you. They are methods that have been used for thousands of years. The confidence, in the Native world, surrounding their ceremonies, and their respect for them, comes from the knowledge of how powerful they are. If a Christian had told me, there is nothing to believe in, just pray, then I may have had better luck with that religion. When I went, as a child, to see Jesus in my special place, I was praying—and it was effective. I felt like a Christian back then, and it was very real, because I had a practice, like meditation. I was making reality through my imagination, not making it up, but creating it, like we always do, all of the time.
SS: Openings, trap doors—reminiscent of the first line of Annie Finch’s poem: “It seemed as if a door came calling.” What about obstacles, deterrents? I often hear from those who are struggling to go public with a story. Fictionalizing or not, they worry that, to call their work spiritual or religious, will shut, rather than open, doors. Does this kind of fear or shame resonate with either of you?
KDM: I was frankly floored by the positive reaction to All Saints. Not that I didn’t think it was a good book. But it was a book about a church. My characters actually attended church. One of them was even the minister of the place. If that wasn’t kiss of death, I didn’t know what was. Years ago, I wrote a collection of personal essays called Holy Writ, in which I “came out” as a person of faith and explored the connection in my life between creativity and spirituality. That book also got a surprisingly positive reaction, both from critics and the grassroots. But at small press fairs when doing my stint at the book table, I always had to do a little tap-dance to get people past their fear and loathing of religion. More than once, I saw someone pick the book up with evident interest, start to read the back cover, realize that something churchy was involved and literally drop it as if their fingertips had been singed.
There is so much anger and suspicion out there regarding religious institutions. Churches have had terrible press in the past decades, and a whole cohort of kids has grown up with little or no religious orientation. People of faith are often assumed to be socially and politically conservative, even to the point of being racist and homophobic. In the early 1990s, when I started sneaking to church, I was afraid I’d be the youngest person in the pews, or the only one who voted NDP. And of course, the so-called professional atheists have been having a field day in print and on talk shows, equating religious faith with stupidity.
Strangely enough, though, none of this has blocked me or made me think twice about going in this direction as a writer. It’s my root material, as they say. I might wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, wondering why on earth I’m even thinking of writing the kind of stuff that fascinates me. But shortly after the alarm goes off, I’m back at my desk, doing it again. It’s what I do. It’s who I am.
CP: I have never felt hampered in writing about spirituality. Writing is about going out on a limb, it’s about taking a risk, being personal, being idiosyncratic, and disguising it all as fiction. But I do think people have an allergy to the word spiritual and a general fear of being conned, brainwashed, shamed, or limited by what they think religion is all about. So I try, as well, to throw them off the scent. I want the hounds to chase me without knowing what they’re coming after.
SS: Fearless, let’s just say you’re fearless. At minimum, determined, focused—fear of “the kiss of death” falls away when you sit down to write. But as you say, there is this “allergy” to the lingo, to what it stands for, so let’s talk about the role of language.
This past summer I lived, briefly, with an Indigenous family in Chile, taking part in traditional Mapuche ceremonies to mark the new year. I did this without any real knowledge of the local language. I could eat and dance, sing in the fields by starlight, but I could not talk. People were kind to me, and I was tongue-tied, trying to thank them. Having no words for these sacred acts threw me off balance. I was awkward, bereft.
But I also felt freed up to think, and feel.
At the other end of the spectrum are the markers, boundaries, the peculiarities of religious language. Trying to tell a story with that language in your head.
My family history is rooted in the liberal wing of the Latter Day Saint movement, a tradition that was shaped by a kind of nineteenth century language that’s ecstatic and domestic, both, filled with arcane in-speak and cliche. The oldest layers of my imagination are saturated with a kind of warmed-over biblical lingo tinged with rural in-speak, the by-product of isolated farmers and artisans far from centres of theological power who exercised their inventiveness—in their words—in “discovered” long lost sacred texts that were “translated” with the use of peep stones. It’s an old story, this bone-deep relationship between isolation and language. A tongue peculiar to a place, its people set apart by language. Quaint, we often call such words (my children call me out as quaint).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these tensions, on how you work around, or with, the language of—here’s a fraught word—the soul.
KDM: Ah, religious language. People have had their heads lopped off, been stretched on the rack, burned at the stake and even shunned at the Sunday School picnic, simply because when they bellied up to the altar rail, they didn’t get the wording right. Even today, many Canadian Anglicans are up in arms (politely, of course) about the language of the mass. I have heard so many people say something like, “I grew up with the Book of Common Prayer, the language of Shakespeare, and this new stuff is ugly and awkward-sounding.” Alternatively, I hear people complaining that “church language,” no matter how modernized, is “remote” and “cold” to their ear. If it doesn’t sound like what they hear on the subway, if they can’t imagine coming out with it during a staff meeting, it just doesn’t, as they say, get in.
I confess that, although I am comfortable with modern liturgy, I lean toward the lofty. I adore the sound of “We have left undone the things we ought to have done, and done the things we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” (Someday, when I’m going on yet another diet, I’m going to tape that to the fridge.) I actually get a kick out of “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table…” And one of my favourite moments of the year comes on Ash Wednesday, when a priest dabs some grit on my forehead and says, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” Somehow, “Keep in mind that you’re gonna die someday” just doesn’t have the same ring.
Ring. As I look back over what I’ve just written, I see that sound keeps coming up. I could as easily have been writing about music. The sounds of words, even of those I don’t understand—perhaps especially of those I don’t understand—have always intrigued me. When I was small, I named my rocking horse Gideon because it sounded like a good horse name. And I had a toy stuffed dachshund whose moniker was—what else—Doxology. For years, I’ve harboured a desire to attend an all-Latin mass. My high school Latin notwithstanding, I would understand little of what was being said. And while that would make many people feel left out, it might just draw me in.
There is something about not understanding, not knowing the exact denotation of every word of a ritual, that is strangely appealing. Last year I attended a ceremony in a Buddhist temple that involved drumming and chant. I actually went into a trance. Was so relaxed at the end that I could hardly stand up. I know little about Buddhism, and could not understand a word of the ritual. But it got to me. It got in.
So what am I saying here? That language can be a barrier? Maybe the Jews had it right when they forbade the naming of the deity. But what kind of attitude is that for a writer to have?
I do know that it is possible to fall in love with liturgy for liturgy’s sake, and end up worshiping not God but church. Lots do it, every week. Sometimes I join them.
CP: Language is seductive and obfuscating. It connects and divides. I deliberately didn’t read the Bible while I was writing Sweet Jesus for fear I’d sound like a bad imitation of Cormac McCarthy. I love language for its capacity to hold abstraction, and to demystify things as well. And in religion, language is so key. Think of the pastors in the Southern States and that whole style of rhetoric that is so incantatory and wild. (I was heavily influenced, now that I remember, by Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, while I was writing Sweet Jesus. Her language is so rich and spooky in that book.) I love rhythm and tone in prose, so I wanted to have, in my book, language that would entice both the modern secular skeptic and the religious. I like contrast, between light and dark. I use the painting term chiarroscurro a lot when I talk about writing. Similarly, I like the sacred and the profane to be close bedfellows. They act as checks and balances on each other.
There is a section in Sweet Jesus that is a sermon, and I had a writer friend read it and write in the margin, “I’m starting to feel uncomfortable and wonder if these are the author’s sentiments?” I was both elated and crestfallen. The sentiments were very emphatically not my own; they were the sentiments of the preacher who was delivering the sermon. But I think there was something about the language that was so compelling, it was hard for even my writer friend to understand that I was making it up; or, to put it more esoterically, being a medium for my character to speak through. We all contain multitudes. We all contain the world. There is no real separation between the inside and the outside, between us and the other. In this way, we have no enemies, no real disagreements but with ourselves.
I would like to make people uncomfortable. I want them to find themselves sandwiched up against what they would prefer to ignore. But I think we’ve lost the art of the cautionary tale, in part because the cautionary tale is by definition moral, and we have no consensus on what that means anymore, and in part because everything is so personal nowadays, the artist is always so visible in what she does, that it doesn’t feel safe to be the devil’s ventriloquest, without winking to the audience and showing them the puppet strings. There is no protection, and only a few eccentrics choose to remain anonymous now. (It’s interesting to think how religious, but also potentially liberating, the era was in which the artist chose to remain anonymous might have been, namely the Middle Ages—prior to the Renaissance and the emergence of individuality—when art was understood to serve the purpose of glorifying God. It stole some of the glory away to put a name on it, but what licence one might have felt to be so confidently in the service of God.)
Thing is, there is great beauty and poetry in liturgy, and I came of age reciting passages from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, though, unlike you, KDM, I hated the line about being not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs. That line epitomized for me a kind of self-loathing that can lie at the heart of the Christian conversion, and it did a number on my self-confidence. I don’t want to be rescued by Jesus from a place of worthlessness. I want to know that I am worthy of forgiveness and love because I am already a part of everything. And this is something I have really only felt doing Indigenous ceremonies—ayahuasca ceremonies, pipe ceremonies, sweat lodges, and sun dances. Most of these ceremonies (with the exception of a pipe ceremony) are incredibly arduous. In a sun dance, you don’t eat or drink for three days, and you sleep outside, and you dance for more than eight hours each day. You get to a place where you are too afraid, or don’t have the strength to cater to the demands of your ego, and you end up somewhere that is very vulnerable; and, in that place, often the only thing that’s left, the thing that has come to me, is gratitude. (And this is coming from someone who usually wants to puke in a yoga class when the concept of gratitude comes up. I hate the implication that we have to smother our discontent with the treakle of gratitude, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Indigenous ceremonies are a far cry from sugar-coated truths of any kind. Interestingly, preparation usually includes cutting salt and sugar from your diet.)
The thing about the humility you feel in ceremony is that you have earned it through a deliberate act of courage, or endurance, or tenacity, so that—in that very moment of real vulnerability—you also feel like a fucking Marine; and it’s in that particular meeting place between softness and strength that I have felt a great humanity, a kind of magnificence of being, connectedto the magnificence of all things, the whole big picture, the animals, plants, wind, water, sun moon stars and planets. It is in this state that I have been able to take the true warrior pose of pride and respect, of self-love and responsibility; and though the feeling may fade over time, you can’t unlearn the lessons you were shown.
The first time I did ayahuasca, I called my father afterwards to tell him that I’d had my first religious experience. I was thirty-eight or thirty-nine. It was four or five years ago now. I had done a fair number of hallucinogens in my youth, and those highs had felt like inspired monologues. Ayahuasca was different. Ayahuasca was a dialogue. It was utterly unpredicatable. I seemed to bring very little to the experience except a willingness to be in conversation. Over many ceremonies, that conversation has been hilarious, transcendent, gentle, tender, and deeply loving, but also terrifying, nothing less than hellish. I know all those aspects exist within me, are a part of me, but I’ve never felt so much in the presence of a voice imparting from the outside, like God would, and without precedent or equal. They say ayahuasca is a female plant spirit that has a consciousness that is ancient and connected to the earth, and that when you drink it, you pass through the veil into the spirit world. I make no bones about it. I’m in no doubt of it. Nor do I feel the need to convince anyone of its validity, because I believe in it–ergo “religious experience.”
SS: TNQ’s annual personal essay contest often attracts “I used to be but now I’m not religious” pieces. Our recent winner, though, sounded a different note. Elana Wolff ’s “Paging Kafka’s Elegist” taught, inspired; rather than negating, or belabouring, Jewish values, it embodied them. In a passage on their shared work of translation, her husband, David, says he: “…felt we were doing the work of ilui neshama—elevation of the soul. By translating the poems of Mordechai Langer we were giving them new breath, we were demonstrating a continuing impact of Langer’s life and deeds in the world, we were elevating his soul, together.”
You two have also found an inner freedom to write about spirituality as desirable, as a rich vein of human experience. How do you suggest we write about the inner life authentically, without defaulting to irony, or swaddling a life-altering flash of insight in sentiment, cliche? I suppose what I’m asking is, how can we navigate around deeply ingrained cultural barriers and inhibitors regarding expressions of the inner life? Where do you suggest we start?
KDM: As I see it, the problem is one of spirituality vs. religion. And yet, for all their conflict, those two things need each other. Religion that does not tap the spiritual well of its adherent is empty ritual. Spirituality that does not ground itself in something with form and intention is so much humming.
When I was writing Holy Writ, I sent a questionnaire to over a dozen Canadian authors, asking them about their religious backgrounds and how, if at all, their writing is related to their spiritual selves. In reply, most started with something like, “I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body.” Once that was out of the way, in talking about their writing, they all but rewrote the Psalms. Their experience of organized religion, however, most often involved having their intelligence insulted, their sexuality ignored or denounced, and their creativity regarded as a nice little hobby. No wonder they stopped going to church.
Religion should recognize, support and encourage our natural capacities to wonder and imagine. Too often, mired in its own politics, it regards them as the devil.
So why don’t I just stay home on Sunday and hum? Because, again, I am a default Christian. My religion is one whose central sacrament–communion–says it all. The Jesus story is one I heard before I could read, and it is in my bones. The cycle of birth, death, and resurrection is one I see happening all around me–in nature, in relationships, in my writing. As for church, well, there are Sundays when I wonder what the hell I’m doing there. But I go. It’s good for my soul. The Anglican communion is a loose, messy bundle that argues with itself incessantly and manages to stay together anyway. Sometimes, in its lumpen imperfection, it manages to accomplish something beautiful and meaningful. Like the rest of the world. Like me.
CP: It’s interesting, KDM, that you should mention the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth because I think that is ultimately the pattern of all things, and certainly at the crux of most religions: how to accept that cycle and, if not defy our mortality (through eternal life), then at least come to terms with it—our erasure, the nothingness, the void that looms and dooms us. I think spirituality is not unlike parenthood: unimaginable until you experience it. And how do you convey, in words, what is so steeped in feeling, so dependent on experience? I realize how elitist, or exclusive that might sound. For years, I railed against the fact that I hadn’t had a spiritual experience, or one convincing enough to make me believe in anything. It made me feel unfairly excluded, because how I was supposed to believe in something that didn’t feel real to me, and I did feel excluded. I was the only non-Christian in my family. I had been given the name Christine and dashed my parents’ hopes of having a faithful daughter. I remember one argument with my mother that culminated in my shouting, “It’s like you all have a gold card, but I don’t have a gold card!”
This is the reason I’m so grateful for the Indigenous ceremonies I’ve done: they are great spiritual tools for skeptics. Because it’s like riding a roller coaster: you cannot deny the experience you’ve just had. I like to think of these “primitive” pagan rituals as very sophisticated forms of human technology. They are lab tests with very predictable results. Make a sacrifice of your comfort, and suddenly you will long for what you already have. Deprive yourself temporarily of all the things you take for granted, and you will see how voracious life is, how insatiable, and how much is required to sustain a single human being.
To return to the analogy of parenting, Indigenous ceremonies teach a wisdom that is similar to the wisdom children teach their parents. As a parent, you are made viscerally aware of the overwhelming resources that one human being requires in order to thrive, because you are put in the role of providing those resources. But the earth, the great mother, is in that position all the time, in relation to every human being on the planet. When you begin to understand a little of what goes into the sacred cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, you may look at the earth in a more connected way. You may see how reliant we all are on the cycling of seasons, on the plants and animals, the water and the air, and how all of this bounty is poured forth so reliably, year after year, to sustain us, and yet in relation to which we rarely stop and bow in gratitude. In fact, we go to great lengths to exploit and relentlessly consume.
When you realize how much is extended to us all the time, you may feel loved. You may feel remorse, too. And that’s okay. But if it makes you want to incorporate into your life a practice of saying thank you, then that’s a good thing. It’s a big part of what spirituality has come to mean to me: gratitude—and imagination.